In a previous column I discussed how exactly you could ask someone “are you mad at me?” in a way that would likely get an answer, rather than a shrug. This time, I want to flip the question and give you some tools on how to express the fact that YOU are upset with someone. The goal here is to get to a conversation rather than a screaming match. So, if you are in the mood for a good screaming match, please skip this article and just watch this video:

Now, if that’s not your cup of tea, here are some pointers.

Get around defensiveness by protecting face

When we make someone else upset it can easily cause cognitive dissonance. This occurs when what we think is different from the observed reality. In this case, the person sees themselves as a nice, good friend, and you are presenting them with a sense that they are being a jerk. To get around this, you have to include a statement that helps them adjust their thinking. When people are upset they often push back against this. “Why should I have to help them?” Well, you don’t. See the video above. However, if you want to get to a resolution before doomsday, you’ll have to hack your partner a bit. One technique, “hey, this isn’t like you,” or “I know you didn’t mean to, but….” This allows them to….

Focus on the behavior

See what I did there! Check out my amazing transitions…okay moving on. When we focus on what the person did wrong, you can easily turn confrontation into problem solving. I know this is old advice but still, it’s worth repeating. When we feel our “self” is attacked, we tend to close up. However, if you isolate the behavior the person can often distance themselves and protect their sense of self. If you are tempted to rail against this, remember your goal in this conversation. A person’s sense of self is hard to change, asking them to pronounce your name correctly is an easy adjustment in comparison. Besides, do you really want to engage in soul searching when you’re grumpy?

Don’t kitchen sink 

When we’re wronged we start building a case in our minds by  heaping on other wrongs to make us feel justified. To make us feel properly riotous in our anger, we dredge up everything that person’s ever done.  You start discussing the trash’s need to go to the curb and your partner’s unwillingness to move it there, and you end up yelling about the one time they locked you out of your house during a snowstorm… Try to avoid this-it overwhelms the person. Stick to one event. Moreover, don’t wait until you are holding a Festivus list of grievances before talking to the person.

Be Altruistic

This can be hard when we feel hurt, but in order to really resolve conflict and get behavior change, you have to assume they have good intentions when you express your concerns. You are in this relationship with this person because they are worth knowing, or you need them for some reason (in the case of work relationships). Assume the best of the person. If for some reason, they are not who you think they are, they’ll show you that. You don’t need a villain to be a hero.

Be Clear

Time for another communication tactic. When you are going to state your reasons for being upset, try the Clear Message Format. It’s a great technique I stole um… borrowed from a textbook. I teach it in class and use it all the time in real life (please don’t tell my six year-old):

  1. State the behavior and your interpretation – without judgement or slant here. So, “you stood me up” is not a good choice. Instead, “when you never showed for our girl’s night.” Then express what you think the motivation is.
  2. Name the emotion and own it – You’ve heard this before. Here’s where the “I” statement comes in. Also, the more specific the emotion the better. It’s like Inside Out. The older we get, the more complex our emotions. So make sure you give it a name.
  3. Discuss the consequences – This is not as ultimatum-ish as it sounds. This can relate again to an emotion. “I am worried I won’t be able to rely on you.” Is a good consequence.
  4. Ask for a solution- This is when you throw the ball in their court and open the discussion.

So, how does that look? Let’s take a missed ladies night…

When you never showed up at ladies night, I was really hurt because we spent so much time planning it, and I paid for your ticket. That made me feel like you didn’t care. I’m worried that if we don’t talk about it, it will make me hesitant to plan another outing. Can we talk about what happened? I really love spending time with you, but I can’t stop thinking that there’s something up here. What do you think?

Or let’s say your partner isn’t pulling their weight around the house

When you walk over things on the floor, it makes me think you don’t see it as your job, or that you expect me to do all the housework. That makes me feel used. If that keeps happening, I’m really going to struggle to keep the house clean by myself. What can we do so that we are both happy?

While these can seem a little forced at first, when you get the hang of it, it can be an amazing tool for preventing conflict. Until next time,  I wish you happy relationships and fruitful conversations!